The Northland Emergency Services Trust (NEST) is the first rescue helicopter operation in New Zealand to get approval to undertake maintenance on its own aircraft.
It’s a move the Whangarei-based service has been working towards for a year, during which time the trust has honed its infrastructure and capabilities to meet Civil Aviation Authority (CAA) requirements.
This also included using good old fashioned D-I-Y know-how to make its own engineering tools to enable the specialist maintenance needed on its fleet of three Sikorsky S-76 helicopters.
And, in July, the CAA approved NEST as a Part 145 certified operation. This will enable the trust to make valuable financial savings, give it greater flexibility when scheduling maintenance for its aircraft, and has even created three new jobs in Northland.
“It will mean a lot more work,” says NEST chief executive, Pete Turnbull. “But as a trust we have financial responsibilities to make savings where we can and this means substantial savings can be made by reducing maintenance flights down to Ardmore in Auckland, and we’ll be able to purchase components and parts direct from suppliers.”
Mr Turnbull says there are also major operational benefits of in-house maintenance such as less downtime for the helicopters; allowing them to get back into the air quicker which results in a more reliable and top quality service.
“We’re always looking at ways we can extract more available time from the helicopters and we strongly believe that doing the maintenance ourselves will help us achieve this.”
Mr Turnbull says NEST’s certification, which required to provide evidence of its internal quality assurance, maintenance control systems, the proposed maintenance to be undertaken, and the qualifications of staff, was achieved with guidance from Aviation Maintenance Control New Zealand Ltd and NEST’s quality assurance manager Rod Trott.
It also helped that NEST was able to make their own tools and machinery. NEST used this DIY ethic to build its own CAA certified Flight Training Device, which has been in operation for 18 months, and one of the more sophisticated pieces of machinery it built as part of its new maintenance operation was a hydraulic rig to help move the helicopter’s controls and undercarriage systems.
While under normal flight conditions this hydraulic power is provided by pumps attached to the helicopter’s transmission system, in the confines of the maintenance hangar an alternative source of hydraulic power is needed.
NEST searched the aviation market but found the required hydraulic rigs to be scarce and expensive. So they custom built their own in accordance with the requirements of Sikorsky’s maintenance specifications, and the finished product plays an important part in NEST’s Part 145 maintenance program.
Since NEST started in 1988 it has contracted Ardmore-based Hawker Pacific Pty Ltd to carry out its aircraft maintenance. NEST still enjoys a strong relationship with Hawker Pacific, and the company will continue to do NEST’s regular avionics maintenance.
But, says Mr Turnbull, NEST saw an opportunity to strengthen its own position by becoming maintenance certified.
“It’s just evolution. NEST has expanded and with this growth there has been a change in structure and capabilities.”
The extension of NEST’s operations to include maintenance will make the service even more unique in New Zealand. It’s already the busiest rescue helicopter service in New Zealand, having carried more than 17,000 patients to date, and because of the vast area and amount of coastline in the Northland region, NEST’s capability is far greater than any other rescue helicopters.
And demand on the service, which includes everything from patient transfers and emergency response through to long-range at-sea rescues, is increasing at a rate of 10% per annum.
“That makes it even more essential that all the helicopters are used to capacity,” says Mr Turnbull.
“In the past we’ve found it difficult maintaining a 24/7 call out reliability because each helicopter has to undergo major maintenance annually. This took the helicopter out of service for up to 7 or 8 weeks. During that time we found we were vulnerable in terms of optimum response times for urgent rescues.
“But a reduced turnaround time from 8 weeks to 5 weeks means that we can be back up and running quicker to minimise the risk of not having a helicopter to provide a necessary service.”